The Alaskan wilderness is among the largest and most vast in all of the United States. Home to breathtaking views and the Aurora Borealis, Alaska may very well be one of the only US states mostly untouched by humankind.
However, the future of protecting the Alaskan wilderness may rest in the hands of the oil industry. Approximately one-third of the US oil production is drilled in Alaska, and ConocoPhillips– Alaska’s largest holder of federal and state leases has drilled hundreds of millions of oil barrels and produced billions of dollars in revenue. Holding approximately 1.6 million acres on the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A), ConocoPhillips doesn’t shy away from its “proud oil history”.
Oil and gas have been drilled from Alaska since 1968 after the Atlantic Richfield Company and Humble Oil and Refining Company announced the discovery of oil reserves on the North Slope of Alaska at Prudhoe Bay. But it wasn’t until March 2000 that Phillips Petroleum purchased ARCO Alaska’s assets for US$7 billion. Two years later, in August 2002, Conoco Inc. merged with Phillips Petroleum to form ConocoPhillips. And 14 years later – production began to skyrocket
In 2016, CoconoPhilips drilled two exploration prospects in the Greater Willow area, dubbed Tinmiaq 2 and Tinmiaq 6. These two drill prospects were to change the mega oil company forever. ConocoPhillips had just locked eyes with the potential multibillion-dollar development that would go on to produce in excess of 100,000 barrels per day.
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That same year, ConocoPhillips won corporate approval for additional funding to increase production. And within a matter of weeks, ConocoPhillips had already appraised the Greater Willow area only to discover three additional oil prospects.
After being hauled through court proceedings in 2021, The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) denied two of the five drill sites proposed by ConocoPhillips in its Record of Decision. In February 2023, the BLM issued its final supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS).
Now, over 159 million barrels of crude oil later, the Biden administration approved one of the largest oil developments on federal land, estimating 600 million barrels of oil and US$8 – $9 billion in revenue. However, the story hasn’t come without mainstream media influence and climate activists twisting and turning the narrative.
Biden has Willow Project approval
On March 13th 2023, US President Joe Biden and his Administration approved one of the largest oil drilling projects staged in the US in decades. After facing backlash from climate activists, a conference was held and hosted by White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre. After being questioned about Willow, Jean-Pierre replied by saying, “President Biden has done more on climate change than any other president in history.”
Joe Biden continues to confound on the climate crisis. Hailed as America’s first “climate president”, Biden signed landmark legislation to tackle global heating in 2022 and has warned that rising temperatures are an “existential threat to humanity”. Yet, his administration decided to approve one of the largest oil drilling projects staged in the US in decades.
Environmentalist organisation Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on March 14, 2023, on behalf of conservation groups to stop the Willow project, saying that the approval of a new carbon pollution source contradicts President Bidens’ promise to slash greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.
Arguing that the project could produce up to 287 million tons of carbon emissions plus other greenhouse gasses over a 30-year period, and could adversely impact arctic wildlife and Native American communities.
The Guardian reported that “Alaska lawmakers, unions and indigenous communities have pressured Biden to approve the project, saying it would bring much-needed jobs and billions of dollars in taxes and mitigation funds to the vast, snow- and ice-covered region nearly 600 miles (965 kilometres) from Anchorage.”
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Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, described Willow as, “one of the biggest, most important resource development projects in our state’s history.”
While the Willow project could ultimately damage the complex local tundra ecosystem, pro-climate justice journals seem reluctant to report on the Administration making plans to prevent or limit oil drilling in 16 million acres in Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.
Biden plans to cut oil drilling
The day before Willow Plans were good-to-go, on March 12th, the Administration announced they will bar drilling in nearly 3 million acres of the Beaufort Sea — closing it off from oil exploration and limiting drilling in more than 13 million acres in a vast swath of land known as the National Petroleum Reserve.
Anticipating anger among environmental groups, Abigail Dillen, President of the environmental group Earthjustice, welcomed the new conservation plan but said if the Biden administration believes it has the authority to limit oil development in the petroleum reserve, officials should extend those protections to the Willow site.
“They have the authority to block Willow,” Dillen said in a written statement.
Assuming the Administration is attempting to limit the opposition to Willow, Elise Joshi, the acting executive director of “Gen-Z for Change”, believes the baring of 13 million acres in oil production is, “a performative action to make the Willow project not look as bad.”
Lori Lodes, the executive director of Climate Power, an environmental advocacy group aligned with the administration, believes Willow has proven “what has happened on climate in the past year is nothing short of revolutionary.” Still, Jean-Pierre assured that climate activists can rest easy knowing that “the Willow project won’t prevent the U.S. from meeting Biden’s ambitious goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
Biden contradicts himself
On March 30th, only a few weeks after approving the Willow oil drilling project in Alaska, the Biden administration announced it is auctioning off more than 73 million acres of waters in the Gulf of Mexico to offshore oil and gas drilling.
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It could be the first Gulf of Mexico lease sale under the Biden administration that actually results in new drilling after previous auctions were embroiled in legal challenges and delays.
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is holding a lease sale for an area that’s more than double the size of the Willow Project in acreage. The administration was forced to hold the sale after Joe Manchin added it to the Inflation Reduction Act, the major climate and energy bill signed by President Biden last year.
At least 27 companies, including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp., submitted bids for more than 300 tracts representing 1.7 million acres, according to Interior Department data. The American Petroleum Institute (API) welcomed the announcement as a “positive step toward a more energy-secure future.”
Oil over everything
There is a counter-productive attitude being exuded by the Biden Administration, and some climate-justice groups have not failed to take action against something they see as being wrong. However, what is most concerning about the Willow Project is no matter who’s doing the arguing; whether it be Earthjustice, ConocoPhillips, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or the Biden Administration, they are all failing to see what they are really fighting for.
The Alaskan wilderness is unique. Alaska is one of the few places in the US that has large, intact natural landscapes. These large areas allow ecosystems to function naturally. This includes mass migrations of Caribou and the natural disturbance of fire that creates a mosaic of vegetation communities. Large, naturally functioning ecosystems are also more resilient and allow species to better adapt to changes in climate.
These dynamic areas offer clean air and water, habitat protection, and support spiritual health, and the Alaskan wilderness is, and always has been a spiritual learning ground for many people. In the words of Alaska’s National Park Service (NPS), “we belong in the wilderness and can find many ways to use and value wilderness lands and waters.”
The wilderness is good for us, as it can teach us that how humanity is treating nature, is a reflection of how we are treating ourselves and each other.